Blur: He Thought of Cars
ritical consensus would have it that Blur hit their peak with Parklife in 1994. The Great Escape received good reviews on release, but was quickly downgraded to “underwhelming follow-up”. Strange, because when I play The Great Escape now, it sounds anything but stagnant. On the contrary, it bursts with life and colour—even more so than its predecessor. It took Blur’s Britpop period (a trilogy of albums starting with Modern Life is Rubbish in 1993) to its peak.
Did Blur move on to more experimental pastures because of this perceived artistic failure? Quite possibly. Whatever their reason, the decision to change was the correct one. The Great Escape was pop perfection, and they were not going to improve on it with minor re-tooling. (OK, they didn’t improve on it by re-inventing themselves drastically either, but it was probably more entertaining this way.)
Do listeners need to be convinced to give The Great Escape another chance? It would appear so; but there is one song extraordinary enough to lure the doubters back in. Simply play “He Thought of Cars” through once—and fall in love with the group again.
It begins with a fade-in—and it’s surprisingly forceful. A stomping back-beat, while Coxon forces a gnarled, repetitive riff from his guitar. This breaks down 25 seconds in, leaving just Damon Albarn over echo-y acoustic guitar. The verses are a peculiar balancing act: a wistful melody, a very resigned vocal performance—yet the lyrics are whimsical—silly, even. (“The motorways will all merge soon / Lottery winner buys the moon”) One can either think the combination a bit ridiculous, or (like me) find it beautifully enigmatic. Blur once had a real hesitancy to show their deepest emotions (prior to 13, on which they indulged themselves in rather unpleasant fashion). This is their great weakness, for some, but I always thought it lent them an aloof charm. Particularly on this track: the melancholic musical backdrop makes it the perfect stage for Albarn to bare his soul, yet he still shies away from that level of openness. It’s a powerfully elusive piece of music.
The chorus is a majestic thing indeed. The stomping backbeat makes a re-appearance—with Coxon’s reverb-heavy guitar still deep in the mix. There are some anguished backwards-vocal samples underneath Albarn, who ceases his stream-of-consciousness lyrical gibberish. He still refuses to give the listener anything tangible to chew on, though (the chorus runs “He thought of cars / and where to drive them / who to drive them with / but there was no-one / no-one…”). It’s a curiously incomplete lyric—Damon repeats “no-one…” but then leaves it to hang with a wordless mumble. The listener expects more, but the singer is hesitant to reveal anything else. He trails off, just as we become gripped.
Then, the bridge back to the second verse. Some high-pitched “la la-la-la-la”s blend in to a solemn trumpet figure, to such an extent that it’s hard to tell where voice ends and instrument begins. Coxon’s guitar thrashes and ripples. It’s beautiful.
More lyrical nonsense in verse two, (“Colombia is in top gear / it shouldn’t snow this time of year”) but we are entranced at this stage. We move swiftly to a second chorus, but it’s slightly different this time. Now, our hero thinks of planes rather than cars, and “where to fly to” rather than “who to drive with”. We are no closer to deciphering who the “he” is, and what has become of him, but it still makes the listener bulge with sadness. The chorus finishes in the usual fashion: left hanging after “no-one”, then the “la la-la-la-la”s and trumpet.
After this, the backbeat drops out again—leaving the pretty acoustic strumming exposed. Albarn is replaced by Coxon’s electric guitar this time. It’s a solo—but certainly not a showy demonstration of his skills as a musician. It’s short and economical and piercingly sad. It rises up again, leading into a repeat of the first chorus.
The track ends on a fade-out, after this chorus. The “la la-la-la-la”s repeat, but the song skulks slowly out of sight. It’s incomplete—we never achieve closure. So the best we can do is to play it again and again—scrambling to find (possibly absent) meaning in Albarn’s meandering thoughts. Surely something this beautiful must have hidden depths?
“He Thought of Cars” fades in at the beginning and out at the end. It’s an open-ended puzzle that makes little logical sense. All we are given is a short mid-section of an incomplete work. This is frustrating, and the listener is left with a strong desire to hear more. But, perhaps we should be grateful that we were lucky enough to experience just a part of this extraordinary song.
By: Kilian Murphy
Published on: 2004-05-06